Kyle Kuzma hasn’t had a dream junior season with the Los Angeles Lakers, to say the least. Through 50 appearances for the team this season, Kuzma has averaged career-lows in minutes per game (24.8), field goal percentage (43.5%) and points per game (12.7).
However, in many ways, Kuzma is the same versatile offensive player that Lakers fans almost immediately gravitated towards during his storybook rookie season, and that’s been evident in the few games he’s started this year.
In seven starts this season, Kuzma has averaged 20.3 points per game on 47% shooting from the field, including 34.1% from behind the arc, while averaging 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in 32.7 minutes. He’s also posted a plus-minus of +9 in his seven starts, which is notably higher than the +1.8 plus-minus he’s posted off the bench this season.
Does that mean Kuzma should be a starter going forward? Maybe not, but he should at least spend more time with the team’s two stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Let’s break down why.
The Big AD Conundrum
While many may assume Kuzma’s impressive net rating with the starters is the result of him playing alongside James and Davis, Kuzma actually hasn’t started a game with Davis, and that’s not because Davis has started a game on the bench this season. Of the eight games Davis has missed, Kuzma has started in his place in seven of them, and the only reason Kuzma didn’t start in the one other game was because he, too, was injured.
When you consider how vocal Davis was about not wanting to play center to start the season, and how well JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have played, none of this is all that surprising. What is a little surprising is how infrequently Kuzma has been used in lineups with both Davis and James given the excitement around Kuzma potentially blossoming into the team’s third star before the season started.
Kuzma has played a total of 219 minutes with James and Davis this season, which is the fifth-most minutes anyone on the team has played with that pairing. However, the disparity between Kuzma and the player who’s ranked fourth on that list, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is an astounding 379 minutes. The issue isn’t the minutes Caldwell-Pope is getting — he’s one of the most reliable 3-point shooters and perimeter defenders on the team. The issue is how much more he and seemingly everyone else is playing with James and Davis compared to Kuzma.
For example, JaVale McGee has played 656 minutes with James and Davis this season. Why is McGee — a shot-blocking, rim-running center — playing so many minutes next to Davis, who could easily slide over and play the bulk of those minutes at a higher level? Beyond the fact that Davis just doesn’t want to, there aren’t a lot of clear answers. And if that sounds like a knock on McGee, it’s not — it’s just that the Lakers are a much more versatile team when James, Kuzma and Davis are on the floor.
The sample size is relatively small, but the three-man lineup of James, Kuzma and Davis has posted a net rating of +16.3 in the 219 minutes they’ve played together. That’s a whole 6.4 points better than the three-man pairing of James, Davis and McGee.
The former trio probably deserves a closer look.
Where can Frank Vogel get Kuzma more minutes?
In spite of the fact that the three-man lineup of James, Kuzma and Davis is posting a superior net rating than the three-man lineup of James, Davis and McGee, the Lakers’ normal starters — a five-man unit of Avery Bradley, Danny Green, James, Davis and McGee — have a higher net rating (+13.4) than if you were to replace Kuzma with McGee (+9.1).
However, there are five-man combinations that are worth digging deeper into that feature James, Kuzma and Davis, and they don’t require Vogel to make a ton of other changes to his rotation.
The lineup that’s had the most success with James, Kuzma and Davis this season also features Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the team’s two 3-point marksmen. In the 46 minutes that lineup has played together, the Lakers have scored 112.5 points per 100 possessions and held opposing teams to just 89.2 points per 100 possessions for an overall net rating of +23.3. Additionally, those five have posted an efficiency differential of +17.5 in 93 possessions, which is in the 100th percentile of any lineup that has played at least 15 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Again, the sample size is small, but the numbers are encouraging enough for Vogel to feel comfortable turning to it on a regular basis.
So why isn’t he?
The simple answer is that Vogel is saving his best lineups for the postseason, but there’s no evidence to support that (or to disprove it, for that matter). It’s more likely that Kuzma has been a casualty of the lack of depth the Lakers have at both forward positions.
Even with the addition of Markieff Morris, the Lakers don’t have a true small forward to back up James, which means Vogel has had to carefully pick and choose which lineups James gets the bulk of his minutes with, and with Kuzma’s size, he’s the natural reliever for James. While Kuzma seems to prefer playing the 3, he’s been miles better at the 4 this season, even with how much he’s struggled.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Kuzma has posted a +6.4 efficiency differential in 1,038 minutes at the 4 this season, which puts him in the 83rd percentile among power forwards. Comparatively, he’s posted a -16.2 point differential in 47 minutes at the 3 this season.
The Lakers would still benefit from letting Kuzma handle the ball and create his own shot when one of James and Davis aren’t on the floor, but if they want to get the most out of Kuzma while they have him, they need to play him with James and Davis a lot more than they have been.
Kuzma might not be the third star the Lakers had hoped he’d be, but he’s still smart enough to make opposing defenses pay for giving too much attention to James and Davis. Plus, he’s the perfect option for the Lakers went they want to go “small” with Davis at center and push the pace because he’s a masterful decision-maker with the ball in transition — that’s easily been his most impressive skill since he came into the league.
Is Kuzma flawed? Absolutely, and particularly on the defensive end. But he’s not useless, and that’s especially true when he’s put in the right role. Kuzma’s not going anywhere until at least this summer, so the Lakers might as well get the most out him while they have him. They can do that by giving him more minutes with James and Davis.